Lokesh Rahul: Taking Chances

Lokesh Rahul is on 96, batting on a flat Kingston pitch, and the inexperienced Roston Chase has the ball in hand. This encounter in the Second West Indies vs India Test was only going to end one way. A charge down the track, and a powerful hit over long-on seals his third Test hundred with a huge six. He raises his bat to the balcony and hugs Cheteshwar Pujara who is in the middle with him, and with that hug he sealed his spot in the Indian top order. However, it was merely a freak injury that led him to being there. It wasn’t the injury to the opener Murali Vijay in the previous Test, but one to Mandeep Singh on the 24th April on a hot day in Gujarat.

IPL Luck

Rahul was always going to struggle to find a spot in the Royal Challengers Bangalore side, with the likes of Virat Kohli, Chris Gayle and Shane Watson dominating the top order. Yet, for a few games of their campaign, when Gayle struggled to find any form, Rahul was given the task of opening with Kohli. It was not successful. Scores of 23 and 7 meant that he was duly dropped, and Watson would be promoted to open.

At the toss of Match 19, against Gujarat Lions, Kohli announced at the toss that Mandeep Singh would come in to replace Lokesh Rahul. However, he never did. A freak injury led to Mandeep Singh splitting the webbing in his finger, and so Rahul was drafted in after the toss, and after the teams had been announced. Kohli moved him down the order to number four, and he came in when Bangalore were in a tricky position. At 59-2 off seven overs, Bangalore needed to build a platform to their innings. Rahul duly obliged. An unbeaten 35-ball 51 helped Bangalore inject some momentum into their innings – which allowed Kohli to flourish at the other end, as he scored a century.

This gave him the confidence he needed, and he hasn’t looked back since. With another rapid fifty in his next match, Rahul was starting to become one of the most feared batsmen in the Bangalore side. Indeed, his IPL statistics from last season serve a fitting testimony to his sensational form; he scored just under 400 runs, averaging 44, with an incredible strike rate of 146. As he captivated his numerous fans, he also caught the eye of the selectors. So, when a limited-overs tour to Zimbabwe was announced, it was hardly surprising to find Rahul on it. Sure, the squad India led there was very inexperienced, with captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni having more caps than the rest of the squad combined, but Rahul took his opportunity for a second time.

Tour of Zimbabwe

The fixtures for the tour of Zimbabwe included three ODIs, and it was in these that Rahul made his ODI debut for India. Rahul emerged from those matches with an average of 196. In the first ODI, India were set a total of 169 to chase, and after his opening partner of Karun Nair, another product of the IPL, fell early, Rahul took control.

Aptly supported by an unbeaten fifty by the more experienced Ambati Rayudu, Rahul found himself on 94, with India needing two runs to win. Hamilton Masakadza was bowling, and it seemed that Rahul had already made up his mind. A huge swing across the line later, and with the ball far back in the stands, Rahul had become the first Indian to make an ODI century on debut. When followed up by an unbeaten 63 in the next ODI, Rahul emerged from the tour as a fan favourite and as an impressive young talent.

Test Comeback

The tour to Zimbabwe was what earned him a Test recall. Rahul had previously featured in India’s tour to Australia, where after failing in two Tests, he managed to produce a magnificent hundred in gruelling conditions against arguably the best bowling attack in the world at that time. However, he was out of favour with the selectors due to his poor run of form, meaning that the more consistent Cheteshwar Pujara was favoured in the series against Sri Lanka and South Africa. Pujara was also favoured in the First Test in the West Indies.

While Pujara failed to make a large score, he played a crucial role in shielding Kohli from the new ball, allowing him to play freely later. This is what managed to keep Pujara in the side for the Second Test, and once again an injury is what handed Rahul a place in the team. After Murali Vijay received a blow to the thumb while fielding, the Indian selectors turned to Rahul to open with Shikhar Dhawan at the top of the order.  Once again he seized his opportunity.

After Dhawan fell early, it was Pujara and Rahul who anchored the Indian innings. Rahul played a classy innings of 158, off just 303 balls. His knock confused the commentators, with Ajay Jadeja referring to him as a solid defensive batsman, while Sir Viv Richards hailed him as a destructive and aggressive talent. His Test strike rate of 52 suggests that he is a slightly more attacking-minded batsman, but in no way comparable to the blistering Virender Sehwag who scored at a phenomenal strike rate of 82.

However, Rahul’s stats are equally impressive in another way. In the seven matches Rahul has played, including the most recent West Indies vs India Test, he has three hundreds. Yet, Rahul has just one fifty, highlighting an extremely impressive conversion rate. This is clearly seen in his top five high scores of 158, 110, 108, 50 and then just 28. When he gets a start, you can be sure that he will go on to score big.

Recent speculation ahead of India’s Fourth Test in the West Indies indicates that it is more than likely Rahul will retain his spot opening. It may be the case that he has a different opening partner though, with Dhawan likely to be dropped for Vijay. Kohli has openly said that he will bat wherever the team requires him to, and so this may be an indication that he will stay at 3, with Rohit Sharma being able to keep his spot down the order. If Rahul plays, it will be interesting to see whether he can maintain his exceptional form – as he will be eyeing up a permanent spot ahead of the upcoming series.

The Future

There is no shortage of Test cricket for the India team this winter. With home series against New Zealand, England and Bangladesh, Rahul will have plenty of opportunities to continue his impressive run of form. Lokesh Rahul has proven himself to be an impressive player of spin, and so the home conditions will serve to bolster his chances of scoring large runs. However, it will not be easy, with the world-class bowling attacks of both touring teams, and the selectors may turn to Pujara for the consistency he provides. While Rahul has definitely been less consistent, his conversion rate is the main advantage he offers over Pujara, as Pujara’s recent scores all indicate starts, but a failure to capitalise on them. Regardless, one thing is for certain, that if Rahul is given an opportunity in these series, he will take it.